Immersion Corp., a technology supplier based in San Jose, CA, has developed a touch screen that could be in a vehicle soon, which simulates the touch and feel of conventional mechanical buttons.

On the surface, the interface operates much like screens now found in vehicles that coordinate navigation, audio and climate-control functions.

However, the new technology should help reduce distraction by assuring drivers through tactile feedback that their command was received, Joe Dinucci, Immersion’s senior vice president-automotive industry, tells Ward’s at the Convergence International Congress on Transportation Electronics here.

The system’s feedback is enabled by “programmable haptics.” These are electronically controlled sensations that communicate various messages to the user.

Video-game controllers, cell phones, medical-training equipment and BMW AG’s iDrive system employ Immersion’s haptic technology, which is programmable via desktop software.

Dinucci says the haptic touch screen “is not very far away,” and the firm is in the third phase of talks with “a large OEM.”

A prototype system has been built for the OEM’s highest-volume car, with penetration slated for the Japanese and North American markets if the deal goes through.

The system provides various feedback levels, including a defined brake when the end of a field, such as the highest audio level, has been reached.

“I think the first benefit I would highlight is (that) it will reduce glance time,” he says. By feeling a button that is potentially reinforced by an audio feedback, drivers are assured of having requested the desired command.

“Today, if you drive a car with a touch screen, like (the Toyota) Prius or a Lexus LS 430, there’s just no feedback. Unless you’re actually watching, you don’t know,” Dinucci says.

Such screens are so distracting that there is international debate over whether the systems should be used while the vehicle is in motion, he adds, noting Immersion’s solution could build a bridge to safer use.

“We think we can make the case, (and) we’ve got user testing plans to prove it, that if you do make an (interface) right and you provide touch and sound feedback, then the ability to do input through a touch-enabled screen can be done safely.”

In addition to the safety and convenience factor, the feature likely will be a differentiator in cluttered segments. “(The OEM we’re talking to) knows that every one of the cars they compete with is excellent, so how do you differentiate and make them feel special?”

While looking to make screens work better, the user interface-development community is at a crossroads on how much redundancy should be built into user interfaces, Dinucci suggests.

When touch-pad screens are placed on the instrument panel in the driver’s direct sightline, they can be difficult to reach. Therefore, a second screen may be on the way; this one placed in the center console.

While two screens might not be considered efficient, multiple touch points for a single operation is becoming commonplace, “considering the range of people that interact with these cars, some of who may be technophobes (or) are physically different,” Dinucci says.

“One of the things that tripped up the original iDrive on the 7-Series was its perfectly Teutonic logic – one way to do it,” Dinucci says. In an effort to streamline the system for the 6-Series and 5-Series, BMW has added various toggles and functions to introduce more latitude.